Book Review: Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

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Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Efrén Nava’s Amá is his Superwoman—or Soperwoman, named after the delicious Mexican sopes his mother often prepares. Both Amá and Apá work hard all day to provide for the family, making sure Efrén and his younger siblings Max and Mía feel safe and loved.

But Efrén worries about his parents; although he’s American-born, his parents are undocumented. His worst nightmare comes true one day when Amá doesn’t return from work and is deported across the border to Tijuana, México.

Now more than ever, Efrén must channel his inner Soperboy to help take care of and try to reunite his family.

A glossary of Spanish words is included in the back of the book. 

OUR TWO CENTS: Ernesto Cisneros’ Efrén Divided (2020) centers Efrén Nava, a young Mexican-American boy who lives with his parents and two siblings in Highland, California. In the novel, Amá works as well as takes care of household responsibilities and Apá goes off to work. Efrén refers to Amá as Soperwoman, after her Mexican sopes, for being able to whip up culinary miracles from the very little they have. While Efrén is a U.S Citizen, his parents are undocumented and the possibility of them being deported hangs over Efrén each night his Amá out late working–afraid she might not return. When Amá goes out to interview for a different job she is caught by ICE and is immediately deported to Tijuana, Mexico. Amá’s absence disrupts the family’s routine and Efrén finds himself responsible for his two younger siblings while Apá works countless, sleepless nights to send Amá money for her return. One day on their way to school, Efrén’s best friend, David, decides he wants to run for school president. After Amá gets deported, Efrén is unable to concentrate and unable to meet  his school responsibilities. Efrén embarks on a journey into Mexico where he meets a friendly taxi man, Lalo, who helps him find his way to his mother. While Amá’s return is uncertain, Efrén decides if running for class president against his best friend is the best thing for him. 

With Efrén Divided, Cisneros shines a spotlight on the emotional toll of having a  mixed-status family when the U.S. government is bent on separating families. Efrén hears about families getting separated at the U.S./Mexico border from the news, from his friends, and from people around his neighborhood. ICE has become an ominous presence in his personal life but also in his community: “He’d heard about ICE setting up checkpoints and literally taking people off the street. He’d heard about ICE helicopters scaring people out of their homes and hauling them away. He’d even heard of ICE making stops at Mexican-geared supermarkets and handcuffing anyone who couldn’t prove they belonged. Whether the rumors were true or not, they sounded real enough to worry him” (Cisneros 49). Constantly hearing about ICE coming and taking family members is psychologically taxing, and for children, this type of violence disrupts any sense of safety children may be trying  to create for themselves. Efrén doesn’t know if ICE is, in fact, arresting people, but he knows enough about ICE to be worried anyway. At 12 years old, he knows enough about systemic power and the ways it’s abused to know that he doesn’t need to see ICE separating families to believe it’s happening and to fear it could happen to his family. He is also aware that the issue with citizenship is one of belonging in some sort of American imaginary where only certain people belong. After his mother is deported, Efrén learns more about ICE, raids, and crossing the border from doing online research and from gossip at his local laundromat. There’s a sense that being more informed is empowering to Efrén, but there are moments when all of the information is debilitating because he feels helpless–not just to help his mother but powerless to tackle an entire system.   

After Amá is deported, Efrén undergoes an adultification process–readers will see him take on more adult responsibilities like taking care of his younger siblings, maintaining the household, and becoming his father’s confidant. It’s clear these responsibilities fall on him because he’s the oldest child. Through this process, Efrén has to learn to do everything Amá did for them and he develops greater  empathy  for all of this labor. One of the ways this adultification is evident is in Efrén’s concern over money for food. Apá gives him the little money he can, but when it’s not enough, Apá suggests he use Amá’s stash of quarters for laundry. As a way to stretch out the money as much as he can, he decides to also take food from school: “He leaned up against the closest trash bin and grabbed some of the unopened bags of celery and crackers students had thoughtlessly tossed away” (Cisneros 91). Efrén recognizes the act of taking the food as stealing and as a necessary risk to help his family. This moment is particularly interesting because he’s put in a position that forces him to question what he’s learned about “right and wrong.” It’s wrong to steal, but it would also be wrong to let his younger siblings go hungry. He resolves that “taking the food from the trash bin wasn’t really stealing” (93). He learns more about these adult “gray areas” throughout the novel including when he learns that what Amá plans to do to get back to her family is considered a crime and later when he witnesses families holding one another through a man-made border wall. 

Apá’s decision to let Efrén cross into Tijuana by himself is another example in the novel of  the ways that the current immigration system in the U.S. forces children to grow up. Efrén and his dad need to get Amá the money to live in TIjuana and eventually make her way back to the U.S. Apá is ready to take the risk of crossing the border to deliver the money, knowing full well that, if he gets caught, he will also be separated from his children. Efrén convinces him that another separation will not help, so Efrén is then tasked with taking a large amount of money over the border to give to his mother. The entire section that takes place in Tijuana is both nerve-wracking and tender. Cisneros does an excellent job at building tension and at rewarding the reader with a heartfelt mother/son reunion. But again, Tijuana is a reminder of how Efrén has been forced to act as an adult because the system is set up against his family. What he witnesses in Tijuana also allows for a moment of introspection on what it means to be a U.S. citizen. Readers also see the ways that Efrén’s parents have been disempowered because of the lack of citizenship; even though Efrén sees his parents as superheroes, there’s a system in place created to dehumanize them, and people like them.

Parallel to the storyline of Amá getting deported is also the storyline of the 7th grade class elections. Efrén volunteers as campaign manager for David, who is running against  their classmate, Jennifer. David is white and from a broken family, and he thinks winning the election will give him enough clout to change how his peers view him. On the other hand, Jennifer is running to help children and parents who are undocumented like her. After confiding in one another that they both have mixed-status families Jennifer says, “‘Nos quisieron enterrar, pero no sabían que éramos semillas […] My mom likes to remind me of this every day. She’s right though. That’s why I’m running. Figured I could make a difference, even if just at school” Cisneros 31). The Mexican saying indeed plants itself in Efrén’s mind and grows as the novel progresses, later informing his decision to also run against his best friend for president and to help keep his community informed on immigration issues and their rights. For both Jennifer and Efrén, the school elections become a way to effect changes where they can. The elections and Efrén’s participation show readers that even the smallest form of governing, like class elections, can serve as forms of empowerment for students and for the community at large. Additionally, school elections are an excellent way to discuss power and governing bodies with young people. Jennifer and Efrén demonstrate that power can be used for good rather than using it to exploit those without it. 

We recommend everyone read Efrén Divided. With Efrén, Cisneros has created a sensitive and caring young boy—of which we need more and more representations. Efrén is an intelligent 12-year-old, but what helps him understand his family’s circumstances and the political climate around him is his kindness. While the story focuses on immigration, it’s also about finding self-empowerment while living in a system determined to disenfranchise people. We also particularly liked the focus on the emotional toll that children with citizenship in mixed-status families experience. Cisneros makes clear that the emotional burden is due to a broken immigration system and not, in this case, because of any decisions made by the parents. Throughout the novel, it’s also evident that ICE is terrorizing  communities and, ultimately, traumatizing people. And one of the ways this happens is by not allowing parents to parent their children by forcefully removing the parent from the picture because of citizenship status. With everything impacting his mental health, Efrén still lets hope guide him to fight for a more just system for all. Efrén Divided is a powerful and heartwarming read about a young boy’s desire to bring his family together after being separated by ICE and learning that he has more power than he realized. Cisneros reminds readers that at the end “somos semillitas.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches. Efrén Divided is his first book. He holds an English degree from the University of California, Irvine; a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach; as well as a master of fine arts in creative writing from National University. As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify. The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that. You can visit him online at www.ernestocisneros.com.

Click here for a Q&A we did with Ernesto Cisneros.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERSSonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 14: Ernesto Cisneros

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 14th in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Ernesto Cisneros.

Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches. Efrén Divided is his first book. He holds an English degree from the University of California, Irvine; a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach; as well as a master of fine arts in creative writing from National University. As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify. The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that. You can visit him online at www.ernestocisneros.com.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Efrén Nava’s Amá is his Superwoman—or Soperwoman, named after the delicious Mexican sopes his mother often prepares. Both Amá and Apá work hard all day to provide for the family, making sure Efrén and his younger siblings Max and Mía feel safe and loved.

But Efrén worries about his parents; although he’s American-born, his parents are undocumented. His worst nightmare comes true one day when Amá doesn’t return from work and is deported across the border to Tijuana, México.

Now more than ever, Efrén must channel his inner Soperboy to help take care of and try to reunite his family.

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Ernesto Cisneros

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A long, long time ago, during my senior year in high school, my teacher Sharon Saxton invited Helena Maria Miramontes to speak with our classroom about her anthology, The Moths and Other Short Stories. I was pleasantly surprised to find that someone else saw the world through a similar lens as me—same Latinx lens. Her story made me feel connected, grounded. This was the first time that the idea of being a writer ever entered my mind. It also served as my motivation for writing my first short story—which I am now turning into my very own YA novel, entitled: The Writing on the Wall.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

After giving up on a career writing screenplays, I decided to drop writing altogether and began teaching instead. The itch to write proved to be to powerful. I began writing short stories that served as prompts and writing samples for my students which they began to really enjoy. Before long, my students began pushing me to write. Eventually, I joined SCBWI and met a handful of individuals who helped me find my way.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

There so many fantastic middle grade novels out there, but the ones I turn to every time I need further encouragement are: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli because of they way it deals with serious issues of race, running away, and mental health in a way that’s accessible to young children. There’s also Operation Frog Effect by Sarah Scheerger. I love the way she captures the voices of such diverse characters in an entertaining fashion—makes it all seem so effortless, although I know better.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

My advice is to believe in myself and to value my heart. It is easily my most important asset I have because it definitely seeps its way into everything I write.

Q: Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

…they reach children while they are still at work shaping their views of the world. I feel that books can serve as moral compasses that can help instill morals, characters, and empathy—all things the world really needs.

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads

Finding a Home in Stories: A Guest Post by Middle-Grade Author Adrianna Cuevas

By Adrianna Cuevas

In my debut middle grade novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Publication date: 5/12/20, FSG/Macmillan), military kid Nestor Lopez moves houses so much, he loses his sense of place. He finds a home trading books with his deployed dad, father and son writing notes and questions in the page margins while artistic Nestor adds illustrations. Stories connect him to his dad stationed thousands of miles away.

When Nestor reads a book with his father, he’s able to explore his dad’s military experiences in a new way and the book enables conversations service members are often reluctant to engage in. As Nestor explains:

“I flip through the pages of this book, Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, and stop the first time I see Dad’s handwriting. I press my fingers over his words, closing my eyes and imagining him sitting in his rack, reading. I flip through each page, looking for his handwriting, scanning for evidence of the life he lives when he’s away from us.”

Stories connect Nestor to those around him and deepen his relationships—particularly important for a boy who feels that home is something impermanent and unreliable.

Not all young readers will relate to Nestor’s constant moves. Not all will connect with the concept of a parent who is far away. But regardless of their current situation, readers can see books as a home. A place to retreat. A place to feel seen and accepted.

Growing up, that’s what books were to me.

My teenage social life summed up in one photo

As a child, I devoured any story I could get my hands on. With parents and a sister who were all avid readers, trips to the library to fill up bags of books and evenings spent browsing bookstore shelves were as expected as pastelitos for Nochebuena and Celia Cruz on the radio. I knew the bookstore and library at the University of Miami, where my dad was a professor, as well as my own house.

The books of my childhood transported me to places I’d never been. As a Florida girl, I was obsessed with the snowy wilderness in Jack London short stories. A solitary introvert, I marveled at the friendships in the Babysitters Club series. My early thirst for the gruesome and grim was satisfied by an illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems. I didn’t think I needed books with Cuban-American main characters because my culture was all around me in Miami—in the food, the language, the music.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest for college that I realized what a haven books can be for readers. I’d never lived anywhere so homogenous, both culturally and ideologically. In Miami, I was allowed to be a book-obsessed hockey fan who was bad at sports and loved to travel. In my new surroundings, I was Latina, nothing more and always less. I was complimented on my mastery of the English language, even though I didn’t speak Spanish fluently until I was in my twenties. Despite receiving an academic college scholarship, I was required to attend seminars about how not to get pregnant and drop out, the expectation for minority students. I was met with confused stares when I confessed that I didn’t like spicy foods because don’t all Mexicans like that? No longer able to see my culture or myself in my environment, I turned once again to my reliable home—books.

I shielded myself from ignorance and microaggressions I had never before experienced by diving into books by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, and Isabel Allende. Their words were familiar, a hand on my shoulder telling me I wasn’t alone. In their stories, I saw loud, boisterous families that mirrored my own. I read mouthwatering descriptions of the food I missed, whose ingredients weren’t even available to me anymore. My language was presented as something beautiful and poetic, not something to be overcome and unlearned. I had never understood the importance of seeing yourself represented in stories until I wasn’t represented in the society around me.

In Total Eclipse, Nestor moves from a place where he is seen and accepted to a place where he is misunderstood and othered. For the first time in his life, he lives off-post and experiences what it’s like to live away from a military base.

“Fort Hood had a Whataburger, a video arcade, and a comic book shop… Most kids at school had parents in the military, so everyone understood if you didn’t want to talk in the middle of science because your dad had flown across an ocean the night before. Now Mom’s moved me to a town where I’m a circus freak. An alien from a distant planet. My only comfort is knowing I might not be here long.”

Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t have the option like I did to dive into stories and see himself in books, as military family representation, especially Latinx families, is incredibly small in children’s literature. How much would it have meant to him to have books like Pablo Cartaya’s Each Tiny Spark to help him while his father is deployed?

Similarly, my choices when I moved to the Midwest were limited and it was difficult to find books that reflected my Cuban-American experience. Twenty years ago, the catalog of stories featuring characters like me was microscopic. How much more at home would I have felt with Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos or Laura Taylor Namey’s The Library of Lost Things at my disposal when I was an awkward freshman? I would have taken Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds, as well as Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe to college with me, turning to them when I felt othered and isolated.

Children deserve to see themselves in stories, not just as caricatures of their culture, but as representatives of the diversity that exists within a culture and as humans with all their quirks and flaws. Nestor Lopez isn’t just a Cuban-American kid who scarfs down his abuela’s croquetas de jamón and plays dominos with his abuelo. He loves dart gun battles, Pokémon cards, and random animal trivia. He’s quick with a snarky remark and his fingers are constantly smudged with pencil lead from sketching. It is my hope that in Nestor, young readers will find a friend they can relate to who shares their eccentricities and hopes.

In a world increasingly antagonistic toward Latinx people, our words as authors have the opportunity to whisper to children, “You are not alone.” Our books can serve as a blanket that warms them when they’re surrounded by the coldness of indifference and ignorance. Our characters can show them they can be heroes.

Our stories can welcome them home.

 

 

Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. After teaching Spanish and ESOL for sixteen years, she decided to pursue her passion for storytelling. Adriana currently resides outside of Austin, Texas, with her husband and son, where they enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking lots of Cuban food. Learn more about Adrianna on her website. And be sure to follow her on Twitter!